What exactly could Barack Obama have done better in 2009-2010? I wrote over at Greg's place yesterday about the dangers of looking only from that point of view; it's apt to miss lots of good calls that could have gone bad. It also tends to place blame on the president for not successfully finding his way around obstacles, rather than blaming the people who were putting up obstacles in the first place: if you think a larger stimulus was called for, your real beef is with Republicans who opposed any stimulus, and then with swing Democrats who wouldn't vote for more, not with Obama. And it's always important to resist the idea that presidents could really get whatever they want and other magical thinking about the presidency.
So much for the throat clearing. Keeping all that in mind, I do think that there were two major strategic options open to Obama that he didn't take:
1. Increased tempo in Congress. Overall, the 111th Congress was, liberal disappointments notwithstanding, highly productive. Nevertheless, they were at various times pressed for floor time to get everything done that they had the votes for – making GOP stalling a good tactic. What could Obama have done? Congress basically used a normal schedule in 2009-2010, taking the usual recesses and the usual long weekends, allowing Members time to work their districts. Had Obama insisted, I think there’s a good chance that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would have switched to an economic emergency schedule, at least during 2009, thereby increasing House and Senate floor time and therefore legislative capacity.
2. Fight harder against GOP filibusters. I don’t think it’s realistic to say that Obama could have persuaded Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster during the 111th Congress. However, I’m not sure they had to accept the unprecedented use of the filibuster, either. Had Democrats, perhaps including the president, spoken out strongly when Mitch McConnell talked about a “60 vote Senate” immediately after the 2008 election, and started threatening filibuster reform early on, I don’t think they would have been able to return to a pre-1993 situation in which filibusters were rare, but I do think it’s possible that they could have prevented the full, 100%, filibuster-everything Senate that they got.
Had the White House chosen those paths, I don't really think it changes any votes -- you still don't get a major climate bill, and certainly not a major immigration bill. The voters were not there. Republicans still filibuster a lot of stuff, so 60 are needed to pass big things. But I don't think it was inevitable that 60 votes were needed for District Judges and minimally controversial executive branch nominees, and for run-of-the-mill, ordinary legislation. And if that had been the case, I'd think that the 111th would have been a fair amount more productive.
This discussion started with a focus on economic policy...I wonder about two things. First, would a double-time tempo have enabled Dodd-Frank to pass rapidly, in spring 2009? Second, could the administration have devised a state and local government fix that was revenue-neutral and automatic over the long run, and also passed it in spring 2009? On the one hand, Obama was quite popular at that point, and both of those bills would be easy to sell as directly responsive to the economic crisis. On the other, a faster tempo would certainly have produced complaints from the Republicans even faster than we got them, and if Obama had lost Arlen Specter and, perhaps, Ben Nelson...well, then maybe everything falls apart, including any stimulus bill at all. In other words, it wasn't risk-free.
I suspect that the biggest mistakes of the administration were within the executive branch, not in Congress (although getting closer to fully staffed a lot quicker might have helped). But if you're looking for "what could Obama have done," I think those are the two legislative strategies that were plausible and might well have made a positive difference.